Morning Phase, the new record by Beck, opens with “Cycle,” a hazy string instrumental, just 40 seconds long, that drifts into earshot and spreads out, a cloud bank stretching across the stereo spectrum. The same musical passage wafts its way into several songs, which makes sense, thematically speaking. Beck is one of pop’s archetypal Angelenos, but the emotional weather on his twelfth studio release is pure Maine in November: chilly and bleak, swaddled in the kind of fog that leaves you unsure where the coastline drops into the swallowing sea. On Morning Phase, the music is austere and autumnal, the tempos slow and stately. As for the lyrics: They deepen the murk. It’s not clear what exactly Beck is bummed out about, but he is bummed indeed: “See the sleet that rests upon the quiet street we’re standing on / Is it time to go away”; “We could come to understand what’s wrong is right as rain / The rock bottom of a hollowed ground where you stake your claim”; “I’m so tired of being alone / These penitent walls are all I’ve known / Song bird calling across the water / Inside my silent asylum.” Et cetera. In “Wave,” the angst pours out like a mantra. “Wave / Wave,” Beck intones. “Isolation / Isolation / Isolation / Isolation.”
Give Morning Phase credit for tonal consistency: The album sets a mood. This has always been one of Beck’s great strengths. Like many a good Southern Californian, he is man who knows his way around vibe—so much so that he has often seemed less like a man than a vibe incarnate. He began his career with his biggest hit, “Loser” (1993), which captured early 1990s “slacker” Zeitgeist by making self-deprecation anthemic. The real sign of the times was the song’s production, which placed a walloping beat against Beck’s ramshackle guitar strum and a chorus big and catchy enough to lift the song to No. 10 on the Billboard Hot 100. Beck snuck in under the banner of the alternative-rock boom, but while that movement’s biggest acts were rock dead-enders, Beck pointed the way forward: The future belonged to music like “Loser,” to pop that was comfortable with hip-hop’s rhythms and magpie sampling aesthetic.
Beck, of course, is a magpie supreme, whose records have drawn in a wide world of sounds: folk, blues, Bob Dylan, David Bowie, Serge Gainsbourg, Caetano Veloso, Prince, Beastie Boys, whatever else has happened to cross his transom and strike his fancy. In the annals of record-collectors-as-artists, Beck’s only real rival is Elvis Costello, and while Beck is a lesser songwriter than Costello, he’s a better record-maker, more adept at giving his connoisseurship a distinctive sonic stamp. The Dust Brothers collaboration Odelay (1996) remains his signature release and, track for track, perhaps his best, but there have been other highlights, from Mutations (1998), a rummage sale mash-up of folk-rock and Brazilian music, to the underrated Guero (2005), which holds Beck’s shapeliest hooks and punchiest beats. My favorite is the soul-funk lark Midnite Vultures (1999). God knows what the internet would make of this album if it were released today. (I suspect songs like “Sexx Laws” and “Debra,” a white bohemian’s goof on R&B, would incite a Twitter tempest.) But it’s a hell of a record, inventive and funky and above all fun, and it tells you everything you need to know about Beck. This is a man most at ease making music that’s about music. He is, you might say, a pop-music Quentin Tarantino: a formal wizard whose best work romps around in the zone where the fanboy in-joke, the virtuoso exercise in style, and the loving tribute become one and the same.
If Midnite Vultures represents one pole of the Beck discography, its opposite number is the record that followed, Sea Change (2002), a collection of breakup ballads. There is a certain kind of music critic who reflexively reaches for the word masterpiece when a pop singer reaches new heights of “maturity”; sure enough, Sea Change was hailed by many as Beck’s mature masterpiece. It’s a solid record with some lovely tunes, but the strain of the thing is a drag. Beck’s singing was always affectless, but on Sea Change he sounded close to catatonic, and a feeling of mannered dolorousness enveloped the album as a whole. The effect was that of a slapstick comedian turned method actor who has undergone shock treatment for an Oscar-baiting role of a manic depressive.
On Morning Phase, Beck sounds extra depressed. As usual, the songs are expertly made, but there’s no flair to them; it’s like someone snuffed out the light in Beck’s songwriting. The musical palate is monochrome, all gray on gray. On Sea Change, Beck enlivened his ballads with subtly eccentric arrangements—with swooning Gainsbourgian strings, with a hint of Latin percussion, with tolling piano chords, pushed to the front of the mix. But the new songs blur into an undifferentiated wash of strums and strings, with Beck croaking in the cavernous space between the two. (When the sameness of the songs is broken, in “Country Down,” by a cliché—huffing folk-rock harmonica—it’s both a relief and a letdown.) Clearly, Beck is aiming for a kind of purity—striving to write with a new simplicity and directness. It’s a worthy goal, I guess, but the cost, on Morning Phase, is dear. Beck has stripped away the wackiness that comes naturally to him, wrestled his songs into the most conventional possible shapes. The result is worse than a boring record. It’s a willfully boring one.
You could chalk this up to age. Beck still looks like a schoolboy, but he is 43; if Sea Change was a breakup chronicle, Morning Phase may be his midlife-crisis album. The songs hold hints of romantic turmoil (“Bones crack, curtains drawn / On my back and she is gone,” goes one of the album’s sharpest couplets), but the anguish is pretty fuzzy—vague intimations of spiritual crises and revelations that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Deepak Chopra audiobook. In “Waking Light,” Beck sings: “When the memory leaves you / Somewhere you can’t make it home / When the morning comes to meet you / Fill your eyes with waking light.” “Morning” delves further in the language of New Age epiphany. “This morning,” Beck sings, “I lost all my defenses.”
I’ve never cared much for the jive-Dada-speak that has been Beck’s default lyrical mode, but it has the virtue of not sounding like something you’d hear at an est seminar or a Palm Springs yoga retreat. In any case, we know Beck is capable of better. In 2012, Beck released Song Reader, his album in sheet-music form, for which he channeled his inner Irving Berlin, writing songs steeped in Tin Pan Alley artifice, that felt like standards, as if they’d been around for ages. (Disclosure: I wrote the introduction to Song Reader.) These were the best lyrics of Beck’s career: sharp, sly, funny, mysterious, touching, far sadder and more soulful than anything on this aggressively sad-sack, self-consciously soul-baring new record. Beck’s defenses may be bad for his spiritual health. Turns out, they’re good for his art.
*This article appeared in the February 24, 2014 issue of New York Magazine.